During my nearly four months in South Africa I met a lot of people, drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of food, and saw some amazing things, but the absolute highlight of my trip was a visit to Kayamandi township two days before my departure. Though I’ve been to Jamestown, the small township across the fence from Blaauwklippen, I jumped at the opportunity to check out Stellenbosch’s largest township (over 29,000 residents, nearly all Xhosa) with a local activist named Selwyn Davidowitz who’s deeply involved in several community projects there.
Thanks to Selwyn’s involvement in Kayamandi, I got an insider’s look at the life of a township resident. For those not familiar with the term, a township is a neighborhood that was restricted to either black or coloured citizens during apartheid. Though institutionalized apartheid ended fifteen years ago, not much has changed for the majority of township residents. Poverty is extreme: residents are often crammed into tiny makeshift shacks with no running water or electricity and communal toilet and bathing facilities. Social violence is a sad reality and HIV/AIDS infection rates are unacceptably high. Worst of all, the townships have a stigma of danger and depressing images that discourages many whites from ever visiting them.
This is a mistake. Despite extreme poverty, there is more joy and hope in Kayamandi than I’ve experienced anywhere in South Africa. The sense of community is incredible: unlike in the sterile white suburbs, neighbors actually visit each other daily, take care of each other’s kids, help each other out. No one exemplifies this incredible spirit of triumph over adversity better than Lily Ngewexana.
Lily is a bit of a celebrity in Kayamandi: owner and founder of Once Upon a Stove homestay, which receives visitors from all over the world, Lily has put Kayamandi on the map as a destination for travelers interested in learning about Xhosa culture firsthand. Because of Selwyn’s personal friendship with Lily, I was able to not only meet her, but try some of her amazing cooking. Visitors to Once Upon a Stove have the option of taking cooking classes with Lily as a hands-on way of learning the Xhosa way of life; she explains, “this is who I am – I want to share my culture through food.” For lunch Lily had laid out an incredible meal: side dishes made of cooked pumpkin, mealies (corn), and potatoes, a marvelous chicken curry, and pap, a cornmeal dish similar to grits which has become one of my new favorites. Totally bland on its own, pap is meant to be picked up with the fingers, shaped into a ball, and dipped in a saucy entrée so it becomes edible cutlery. It’s a fun way to eat, and the pap absorbs the flavors of the food to make a tasty combination of textures. Washed down with Lily’s homemade ginger beer, a Xhosa specialty, it was a meal to remember.
With this lovely hostel and excellent cooking, Lily is the picture of success in Kayamandi. But she wasn’t always on top of the world: as a young girl she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant, and had to fend for herself with a baby in tow, selling used clothing to put food on the table. A few years later she suffered even greater misery when her husband began abusing her viciously – to this day her arms are covered with angry scars, painful evidence of her ability to withstand hardship. Determined to survive, and now with two young girls in tow and a third on the way, Lily fled her husband’s tyranny and began selling whatever she could – clothes, household items, food – to support her family. Eventually she heard of a bank that was hiring collection agents, and she showed up without an appointment seeking an interview. “They asked me all these questions I couldn’t answer, like ‘where is your C.V.?” she recalls. “I didn’t even know what a C.V. is!” Nor could she provide references, having always worked for herself. Finally the interviewer asked Lily how she dealt with robberies, a common occurrence, while selling clothes. She replied, “I know people. I know how to collect my money. I have never once been robbed.” Though she had no resume, her work experience won over the interviewer, and the next day she was hired.
After moving up in the bank and educating her older children, Lily moved back to her hometown of Kayamandi. Having repossessed a small stove during her work with the bank which she then purchased, Lily’s cooking career began with a scone business which funded the building of her house. The finished house became a homestay, and Once Upon a Stove was born – a B&B where travelers can experience Kayamandi, volunteering in the community or taking cooking lessons from Lily. Showing us around her lovely house, Lily’s pride is evident: “Every brick of this house I built myself!” Her brilliant business skills, truly indomitable spirit, and hospitality have elevated Once Upon a Stove to international success: it was featured in the American TV special “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” and represented at the Food Exhibition in Toronto.
Lily is also a tireless community activist. She’s involved in programs in Kayamandi for education for children, counseling for domestic abuse victims, and other projects; it’s clear she is a mother to the whole township as well as her four well-educated daughters. From unimaginable obstacles to international recognition, Lily has had a truly remarkable life, and spending the afternoon with her was the most rewarding experience of my trip.
For more about Lily and Once Upon a Stove, check out the website: http://www.once-upon-a-stove.co.uk/
Kayamandi has no shortage of grassroots social projects; Selwyn introduced us to a few of his own special programs, from a trash cleanup effort to a dance club for youngsters that includes all types of dance styles – including ballroom dancing! We had a most wonderful surprise when we stumbled upon an adult choir practicing in the community center: this untrained group sounded like a professional gospel choir. It was the most uplifting music I’ve ever heard. Selwyn told the choir that if they could learn how to record a CD and put all the steps together, he’d produce it for them. “You give me a good product, and I’ll take it the rest of the way,” he told the choir leader. It was so exciting to witness the beginning of a project that could take this amazingly talented choir to the next level. It’s a perfect example of the can-do spirit and sense of hope that exist in Kayamandi in abundance – let’s hope this attitude, rather than the doubt and cynicism that so often taint conversations in South Africa, carry this turbulent but amazing country into the future.
NOTE: Thanks to the great response I’ve had to this site, and because I’m planning to return to South Africa next year to do another harvest and some teaching in Kayamandi, I will be keeping Stellenbauchery updated from my home in the Niagara Escarpment wine region of New York State. I’ll be reviewing any cool South African wines I drink, covering SA wine-related events and news, and as usual throwing my little dash of wine-related politics and social commentary into the mix. Thanks for reading so far, and stay tuned for more! Cheers!